On 12th April 2019 the Governor of the US state of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, signed a bill into law which allows assisted suicide for those who have mental capacity, are terminally ill, and are within six months of dying. The law is based on a similar law in Oregon which has been in force for over 20 years.
New Jersey is the 8th US state to pass this form of legislation, following Oregon (1994); Washington (2004); Vermont (2014); California (2016); Colorado (2016); Washington DC (2017) and Hawaii (2018). The addition of New Jersey, brings the US population with access to assisted dying to almost 70 million – over 20% (1 in 5) of the total population of the USA. (Assisted dying is also permitted in Montana, though this is by virtue of a court ruling rather than legislation.)
In signing the New Jersey Bill, Governor Murphy, a Catholic, is quoted as saying:
“After careful consideration, internal reflection and prayer, I have concluded that, while my faith may lead me to a particular decision for myself, as a public official I cannot deny this alternative to those who may reach a different conclusion.”
“I believe this choice is a personal one and, therefore, signing this legislation is the decision that best respects the freedom and humanity of all New Jersey residents.”
MDMD applauds Governor Murphy for taking this position and sharing his reasoning. It was clearly a difficult personal decision for him, but in putting respect for the autonomy of others above his personal beliefs he demonstrates an important principle that others of faith should follow. His decision also shows compassion for those who need to use this law to enable them to have what for them is a good death.
As an organisation, MDMD welcomes supporters of all faiths and none. We respect the values, choices and traditions of others to make their own end-of-life decisions for themselves. We plead for the type of reciprocal respect and understanding which Governor Murphy has shown in passing this legislation. Unfortunately, many religious leaders and organisations do not share Governor Murphy’s tolerance of other people’s views. Two recent examples of this, concerning the renewed attempt to change the law in Scotland, appear in articles published by the Scottish Catholic Observer and the Christian Institute. It is unfortunate that these bodies fail to show the compassion and respect demanded by 93% of the UK population – a figure which demonstrates just how out of touch the views of those opposed to change are.
Although MDMD welcomes the New Jersey law as a first step towards a more humane approach to dying in the 21st century, we believe that the “Oregon model” approach has significant limitations. Most significantly the 6 month terminal illness criterion excludes many people who quite rationally long for medical assistance to die. In addition, there are concerns over the support and counselling given to those who choose to make use of the law, and the process by which assisted dying drugs are administered. These issues were demonstrated in a Louis Theroux documentary shown on BBC2 in November 2018. MDMD are pleased that these issues are now actively being reviewed in Oregon.
Despite these reservations, the new law in New Jersey is another clear sign of the progress being made by right-to-die campaigners around the world. Progress that, we hope, will one day reach the UK – which is looking increasingly backward on the issue.